Lot 3008
  • 3008


6,000,000 - 8,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • glass, zitan (Pterocarpus santalinus)
  • 112 by 71 cm., 44 1/8  by 28 in.
intricately painted utilising the aerial perspective, and with full utilisation of Western styles of perspective, naturalistically rendered with a tranquil scene depicting a port, the foreground of a grassy lawn next to a calm sea extending to the horizon below a blue sky accentuated with cloud wisps, the lawn depicted with five figures elegantly dressed in European attire, two gentlemen depicted standing and conversing with each other next to a pair of pillars at the entrance of a brownish-beige building, the shoreline further depicted with a male and female figure depicted seated with their backs facing the sea in the background with a further male figure standing close by and looking out to the sea, the sea skilfully rendered with a deep rich blue transmuting a lighter tone of blue in the background, spaciously depicted with sailing vessels of varying sizes including a large one in the foreground with masts and a flag emitting grey exhaust gases, the opposite shoreline bordered with small quaint houses, set in a zitan frame elaborately carved with floral and foliate scrolls

Catalogue Note

Expertly painted in brilliant colours with a European subject, this piece is arguably the greatest Chinese mirror painting ever to be offered for sale at auction. An idyllic scene of well-dressed figures in the foreground, seemingly oblivious to the ship bearing the old naval flag of Marseilles and firing cannons in the background, has been rendered in a European style. This painting not only reveals the influence of European prints and paintings on the Chinese court, but also the high level of skill of the Chinese artisans who were able successfully to imitate a foreign genre and style.

Paintings of this type were not only the prized possession of wealthy European families in the 18th century, but also of the Imperial Court. By 1773, reverse glass paintings were sent as tribute gifts to Beijing from Guangdong, and according to the Jesuit missionary, Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, in his Mémoires Concernant l’Histoire, les Sciences, les arts, etc. des Chinois, Paris, 1786, vol. 2, p. 363, the Qianlong Emperor summoned Cantonese artists to Beijing to produce such paintings and also commissioned the two Jesuit missionaries, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) and Jean Denis Attiret (1702-68), to paint on glass. As Nancy Berliner notes in the catalogue to the exhibition The Emperor’s Private Paradise. Treasures from the Forbidden City, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2010, p. 175, ‘the concept of taking mirrors one step beyond their straightforward function must have appealed to the Qianlong Emperor’s fondness for optical illusion’. The vast landscape created through the use of aerial perspective, filled with European style palaces also catered to the emperor’s taste for the exotic West.

The establishment of Canton (present-day Guangzhou), as the centre of Western trade activities was instrumental in the development of this unusual art form. While mirror paintings had been produced in Europe since the Middle Ages, once this technique was introduced to Canton in the 18th century Chinese artists produced works that exceeded the quality of their Western counterparts. This encouraged a number of European artists, including the Swedish miniature painter, Lorens Sparrgren (1736-1828), to travel to China to learn the art of mirror painting from Chinese artists. Furthermore, flat glass sheets of the size and quality needed to produce these paintings were exported from England to be decorated in Canton, and the finished product was often sent back to England. 

Panting on glass involved a highly complex process, described in detail by Amiot, op. cit., p. 363. The designs on mirror paintings were either painted onto the mirror glass before silvering or traced onto pre-silvered plates so that the mercury backing could be removed prior to decorating. After cleaning, the surface to be painted was washed over with gum water applied by a soft hair pencil or brush. Once the gum had dried, the artist worked on the image in reverse using a fine writing brush to apply oil colours, occasionally mixed with gum. The finished article was then placed in a clay pan between layers of finely-sieved quick lime before the colours were hardened.

Compare a smaller pair of paintings mounted as table screen decorated with an English landscape, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, included in the exhibition The Emperor’s Private Paradise, op. cit., cat. no. 16. It is interesting to note that the background of this painting has been fully covered with paint, lacking the mirror. This method was first adopted by Spoilum, one of the most renowned artists working in this medium in Canton; compare a painting attributed to him, depicting a European lady and her daughter in a landscape, published in Carl L. Crossman, The Decorative Arts of The China Trade, Woodbridge, 1997, col. pl. 4.